Perfect 36

July 27th, 2009

Before taking the ACT last October, Jonathan Turner devoured the classics: Chopin. Shakespeare. Huxley. David Webb tried to cancel and get his money back.

Jonathan Turner ate a big breakfast: two pieces of toast smothered with peanut butter, four eggs, two glasses of skim milk and some oatmeal. David Webb grabbed a Burger King chicken biscuit on his way there.

Jonathan Turner arrived early and anxiously waited in the rain for the doors to open, water soaking his long hair and dripping onto his shirt. David Webb scurried into the testing room just before the 8 a.m. start time.

But once the four grueling hours were over and their pencils had been rubbed dull and brains had been taxed and tested; once the three long weeks of waiting had passed and the anxiety had worn off and their scores had arrived, Jonathan Turner and David Webb saw the same number staring back at them: A perfect 36.

It’s difficult to do. Only about 1 in every 3,300 students who take the ACT ever accomplish it. Only 69 did it this past year. Only three in West Virginia.

Two of them become Mountaineers in August.

All in the family

Jonathan Turner has West Virginia University in his blood.

He grew up just 18 miles down the road in Fairmont, where flying WV flags hang from front porches and residents flock north on game day. His mother and father were Mountaineers. His oldest brother is a senior in the physical therapy program. His other brother is a junior business major. One of his sisters takes classes part-time.

Still, when Turner started applying to schools, his list was longer than just WVU .

He visited Wheeling-Jesuit, but Wheeling didn’t feel right. He took a trip to Johns Hopkins, but the campus sat on the edge of an urban area that didn’t feel safe. He tried to get in at Harvard, but Harvard wouldn’t have him.

In the end, it was a battle of the research universities: MIT and WVU. And, as many of life’s biggest decisions do, it came down to money. WVU gave him more, offering a prestigious Bucklew scholarship .

“Pretty much a full ride,” Turner said. “I was ecstatic.”

So was his family. He was going to be one of them. He was going to turn blue and gold.

To be a Mountaineer or not to be

David Webb, on the other hand, was torn.

It was December and he sat in Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., with his father, a University of North Carolina graduate who had raised him to hail the Tar Heels, watching the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

On the field, his father’s Tar Heels were battling West Virginia University’s Mountaineers. They were supposed to feel like his Mountaineers. But they didn’t. Not really.

Webb had always planned to do what his father had done and leave the state after high school. But the closer Webb inched toward graduation, the more that idea seemed like the wrong one for him. What he really wanted was to stay closer to his family, his parents and younger brother, in Charleston.

So he, somewhat apathetically, applied at WVU. He visited. He liked it alright. He was accepted. Like Turner, he received a Bucklew scholarship that made his instinct to attend a college close to home appear prophetic.

But on that day in December, he was still undecided, still feeling that childhood tug of the Tar Heels. They had always been his team. But Pat White had always been his favorite player. So when White went on a rabid tear, dodging a stacked line and slicing passes between defenders for 332 yards and a victory, it was bittersweet.

Either way is OK with me,he told himself. But he didn’t bother to gloat.


Turner and Webb have all of the academic accolades you’d expect of Bucklew Scholars: National Honor Society; math, writing, chemistry, history and leadership awards from their respective high schools; nods from the U.S. Department of Education’s Presidential Scholar committee and the National Society of High School Scholars.

But neither one dreamed of 36. Who walks into the pressure-cooker that is a college entrance exam and expects perfection?

Turner figured he’d done better than the first time he took the test and scored a 33. But when he counted up all of the questions that had given him trouble, assumed he’d gotten them wrong and calculated his probable score, it wasn’t perfect.

Webb didn’t really care how he’d done on the ACT. He’d already scored a 2200 on the SAT, and that was enough to impress the schools he’d chosen. He only took the test because he couldn’t get a refund.

Now he thinks about what it would be like if he hadn’t.

The publicity that comes with perfection has been kind to these teenagers. Ivy League universities called and asked for their applications. Reporters called and asked for interviews. Teachers and friends called out with congratulations in the high school hallways.

But perfection breeds pressure, too.

Decisions, decisions

When Turner was in middle school, his teachers gave him and his classmates an ominous warning: You better figure out what you want to do and who you want to be.

“I’m like 13 years old,” Turner thought. “I don’t know.”

He couldn’t even decide on a hobby. Soccer? Violin? Baseball? Piano? Swim team?

Eventually, the pieces rattled into place and Turner came up with this: “After much deliberation, I’ve decided I want to go to med school. I want to practice medicine, then after I’m finished practicing, I want to work in administration at a college or university.”

Those are 60 years worth of plans and goals that could go the way of his childhood violin lessons which he quit or could go the way of his breast stroke which he still swims.

Every morning, he drives the 30 minutes from Fairmont and slips into the pool with the WVU swim team. In the afternoon, he does it again. In August, he’ll finally move to Morgantown full-time and quit the commute. Unlike his brothers, Turner plans to live here. He wants to hike to class and feel the game day frenzy. He wants to stay up late in his Honors dorm room and wake up ridiculously early for swim practice.

“I want the whole experience,” he said. “I want the whole deal.”

Making his mark

Webb wants the shadows. He never liked to play lead guitar. He thinks he doesn’t have the personality for it. But that’s what his parents bought him when he begged for a bass.

Pretty soon, his brother wanted to play an instrument, too, so Webb made him a deal. His brother would insist on a bass guitar and then they’d trade.

The bass, Webb says, suits him, because it’s integral but it’s not flashy. It’s kind of how he sees himself. “I don’t like to be in the spotlight, but I like to contribute,” he said.

He plans to study engineering when he gets to WVU and, really, it’s a lot like playing bass. Construction needs engineers just like music needs bass players. They’re the foundation.

He’s not sure what kind of engineering he wants to focus on yet. He hopes his professors and his introductory classes will help him figure it out when he gets here. Whatever area he chooses, he’ll own it likes he owns his music.

Webb may not be flashy and he may not like the spotlight, but he likes freedom. He likes to play loud.

And he wants to leave a mark.